Sarajevo, Bosnia: Keeping the Memory Alive

From Sarajevo with Love (1)

I wandered the narrow streets of Sarajevo and could barely believe I had found my way to this peaceful valley nestled in the Dinaric Alps. Although I had wanted to visit Sarajevo for many years, I had known very little about the area other than there was a war. I wasn’t quite sure how the war had started or why. Not wanting to arrive from Croatia completely naive, I had devoted many hours to learning about the relationships between the former Yugoslavian states, and about the Siege in Sarajevo specifically, in the months prior to my departure. 

Preparing for the Journey

In preparation for my journey to this tranquil city with a messy history, I had scheduled coffee with a friend and coworker whose family had escaped Sarajevo early in the conflict. She shared her story and her experience with homesickness after migrating first to Germany, and then to California. She let me borrow a copy of her Bill Carter book called Fools Rush In. Carter is a Californian from Chico, who happened to connect to an international aid organization that was delivering food to the city during the siege. He stayed for years to eventually coordinate a broadcast alongside U2 from Sarajevo to the rest of Europe on their 1992 ZooTV Tour. Carter and Bono then produced a documentary together called Miss Sarajevo to illustrate how the people of Sarajevo lived and dreamed during the siege. I wanted to understand as much as possible, to show respect for a city that was only 22 years in recovery from such a catastrophic, human created event.

I arrived on a Saturday, and met a friend from the Couchsurfing website. She showed me to my guesthouse, and we arranged to hike to Skakavac Falls the following day. For the remainder of the day, I traversed the steep hillside of winding, narrow streets, and listened to the calls to prayer from the Gazi Husrev-beg’s Mosque. From the balcony at my guesthouse, I could see the Miljaka river, funneled into a straight channel alongside Obala Kulina bana. That night, I dreamt of gunfire and deep sadness. 

Bridge across the Miljacka River
Cumurija Most across the Miljaka River.

The Mt. Trebevic Gondola

On Monday, I decided to ride the gondola up Mt. Trebevic. The Mt. Trebevic gondola had operated before the siege, but had remained closed until six months before my visit. I was one of only a few visitors to the attraction, and the newly constructed visitor center was sparkling and polished. An active construction site waited at the top of the mountain. 

The Gondola to Mt. Trebevič
Cable cars descending and ascending Mt. Trebevic in the Bistrik district.

The first victim of the Bosnian War was a man named Ramo Biber. He was the guard of Mt. Trebevic gondola. The Serbian army killed him three days after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence, and then stationed themselves on the side of the mountain. From their piled rock walls on Mt. Trebevic, snipers terrorized the city and its inhabitants. The gondola, closed for so many years and representing aggression and death, finally re-opened in April, 2018. Now it symbolizes healing for the city.

The Oldest Sister’s Bracelet

Tuesday was my last full day in Sarajevo before venturing across the next border into Serbia. I was uncertain about visiting the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to witness the agonizing concrete facts of the war since I had been experiencing nightmares about genocide anyway, but I finally decided that it was more important to support such a museum than to protect my own sensitivity to restless spirits. The museum opened in 2016 and is a collection of artifacts from victims, narratives from survivors, footage of the mass graves being excavated, newsreel from the trials for crimes against humanity at The Hague, and written documentation of the many concentration camps established around Bosnia at the time.

Remnants of War
Many buildings and houses are still in disrepair from the siege.

The entire collection was always deeply troubling and sometimes gruesome, to read a story of fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, grandparents, murdered, raped, and tortured, and the narrative was accompanied by an artifact, like a sweater with a burned bullet hole in it, or shoes stained in blood. One survivor story included a handwoven bracelet. The survivor, a grown woman now who is exactly my age, said that her eldest sister always wore that bracelet. When her family was gathered and executed alongside a mass grave, she fell in with them but was not killed. She said that she waited until dark, then climbed over the bodies of her parents, two brothers, and six sisters, to escape, clinging the entire time to the bracelet. The bracelet is now on display along with her story.

Keeping the Memory Alive

Before entering the museum, a large plaque hangs over the doorway, listing the number of people dead, displaced, wounded, detained in concentration camps, and still missing. It continues, to state that

“Keeping the memory alive is an important factor in avoiding genocides and massacres in the future, especially in a time when separation and racism are slowly making their way back into the world. This museum shows a sad part of human history. In this museum, many stories were told and crime scenes exhibited. With the strong emotions embedded in the exhibit items, you can therefore understand the war experience of the Bosnian people. Most importantly, this museum is run by victims, those who have experienced the war. It is significant for every human to learn what hate can do to other humans. Without this learning, we are prone to allow it to happen again and again…”

I departed Sarajevo with a deep feeling of gratitude that I had been welcomed into this city, and had been allowed to learn and understand their recent history, which was still healing. 

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